For me, living faithfully after Christendom is an exercise in improvising in the key of gospel. We face – daily; hourly – previously-unimagined challenges and situations; a set of rules is too solid, too clunky, to cope. Obeying rules, however well-intentioned and well-written, will make us irrelevant and offensive. Instead, we need to learn to indwell the gospel narrative the way a jazz soloist learns to indwell the music, and to be as responsive to the ever-changing context as a soloist is to the audience and to the previous solos of her fellow players. We need to immediately, instinctively, create new movements that beautifully express one example of what gospel might look like in this particular context.
Of course, it is hard – so hard…
And – we’re talking improv – of course there is no training manual…
But there is that moment in jazz when you hear it (Kind of Blue, anyone?) and know that here is something that is at once both powerfully authentic and immediately relevant, and so that stands as a marker of what it looks like, how amazing it can be, when someone just gets it right.
And when a Pope asks a beggar to hear his confession…
Or when Andrew and Brenda and Nathan print some T-shirts reading ‘I’m sorry’…
Or when Tony throws a birthday party for a prostitute at three o’clock in the morning…
Or when the women of the church I once led said ‘we’re going to give her the mother of all baby showers…’
Or – well, I have some more stories, but what would you add to this list?…
…when these things happen, I swear I hear angels singing as they did in the hills above Bethlehem, and Heaven partying the way only Heaven can – because someone has learnt how to improvise in the key of gospel.
“[Mary] is introducing her son; but the child she shows to us is precisely a figure who gives his whole attention to her…. And it is not only that we cannot understand Mary without seeing her as pointing to Christ: we cannot understand Christ without seeing his attention to Mary. Jesus does not appear to us a solitary monarch, enthroned afar off, but as someone whose being and loving is always engaged, already directed towards humanity…. In this icon, Mary is who she is by pointing away from herself: her identity is caught up in leading us to Jesus. She is ‘the one who points the way’ in several senses, therefore. The way to life is the path away from self-contemplation and self-presentation, from putting oneself before the human world as an isolated unit, a solid lump of human material, sufficient to itself. More specifically, it is a path towards Jesus; but, in turn, not towards a Jesus who is himself an isolated figure, but towards his loving attention directed towards someone else…. The way to Jesus and with Jesus is the way into his own self-forgetting engagement with the human world, not simply a contemplating of him as a divine individual.”
The most wonderful, most shocking, most desperately beautiful thing about the Cross of Christ, is that through the self-offering of Jesus, God not only forgives our sin, not only applies to us the righteousness of His Son, but also bestows upon us His innocence as well, lays His character upon us as something that can start to soak into us, so that we become more like Him by degrees, until the moment when we will wake up in His likeness. We can struggle and fight with Him as much as we like, but if we have said ‘yes’ to His hand upon us, we’re captive to mercy and doomed to Heaven, I’m afraid, destined by sovereign election and grace to become as like Him as possible. And the question He implicitly puts forward to us all the time, in every word of His, is this: If that is what you will look like in Heaven, why not start acting like it now?The Rt. Rev. Dorsey McConnell, here (via bethmaynard)
Proverbs is only half of wisdom. The other half is found in the Book of Job. And Ecclesiastes. And Jesus at Golgotha. The other part of wisdom—the deeper wisdom—centers on the folly of the Cross.
Not the Cross as a mere rest stop on the way to Resurrection. Not suffering as a means to an end. Not hardship that builds character and makes us better. That’s more Proverbs wisdom and is true as far as it goes. That’s the theology of glory—if we do this and that, and endure this and that with the right attitude, all will be well.
The theology of the Cross says that God is most deeply met in the suffering itself, not just on the other side of it. Forgiveness of sins is not found after the Cross, but in, with, and under the Cross. This is the “wisdom of the cross” (1 Cor. 1–2) that is folly to the world.
Lewis is a brilliant storyteller; he’s not one of the world’s great novelists. But even so, what he does, he does wonderfully. He is always very good at depicting something about joy.
If you look at an extraordinary episode in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where Lucy finds herself reading a story in a magical book, when she puts the book down she can’t remember the details of the story. She just knows that it’s the best thing she’s ever read, the most enriching and beautiful thing she’s ever encountered. As she’s talking to Aslan afterward she says, “Will you tell me that story again?” Aslan says, “One day I shall tell it to you forever.” It’s that kind of moment where you realize that Lewis has got hold of something that very few writers do manage to crystallize, a sense of absolute immersion in the richness of the moment.
It comes across in The Screwtape Letters, which still read very well, when the one, old devil says to the younger devil that God’s great secret is that he’s a pleasure lover at heart. At the heart of it is joy. That’s Lewis all over.
A good deal of Lewis’s life, of course, was marked by enormous stress and great suffering. It’s not as if he had an unchallenged life. Some of the emotional force of his writing does come from his being a motherless child, looking back to that sort of magical world before the suffering broke in—and we all have a little bit of that in us.
But what he does with it then, instead of making it a cozy, backward-looking thing, he unites it to all of these great moral challenges, the challenge of facing up to yourself, the challenge of going on being faithful in prosaic ways day by day. It’s really only by doing the next thing—being faithful in small particulars—that you come to this joy. It’s not magic; it’s not nostalgia. It’s a very fine balance that he deals with remarkably.
So when he comes to write about his wife’s death in A Grief Observed, which is, for many people, the most extraordinary and challenging of all his books, it’s as if you know anything he says about joy or hope is hard won. It’s really something that’s come to him not by glib formulations or easy answers. He really has fought for it.
The fog has yet to lift, God, and still the bustle
of buses and garbage trucks. God, I have coveted
sleep. I have wished to find an empty bed
in the hospital while on call. I have placed
my bodily needs first, left nurses to do
what I should have done. And so, the antibiotics
sat on the counter. They sat on the counter
under incandescent lights. No needle was placed
in the woman’s arm. No IV was started. It sat there
on the counter waiting. I have coveted sleep, God,
and the toxins I studied in Bacteriology took hold
of Your servant. When the blood flowered
beneath her skin, I shocked her, placed the paddles
on her chest, her dying body convulsing each time.
The antibiotics sat on the counter, and shame
colored my face, the blood pooling in my cheeks
like heat. And outside, the stars continued falling
into place. And the owl kept talking without listening.
And the wind kept sweeping the streets clean.
And the heart in my chest stayed silent.
How could I have known that I would never forget,
that early some mornings, in the waking time,
the fog still filling the avenues, that the image
of her body clothed in sweat would find me?
I have disobeyed my Oath. I have caused harm.
I have failed the preacher from the Baptist Church.
Dear God, how does a sinner outlast the sin?
… is the Spirit only to be a ‘triumphalist’ Spirit, bearer of joy and positive ‘feeling’? Or, if this is Christ’s Spirit, breathed out of his scarred body, ‘one in being’ (homoousion) with the Father and Son, must one not allow as much for the fire of purgation (T. S. Eliot’s ‘flame of incandescent terror’, if you will) as for the refreshment of the comforting dove? Could it be that the acceptance of Christo-morphic pain is part and parcel of the full acceptance of trinitarianism…?
Sarah Coakley. This quotation, from the first volume of her new systematic theology, comes at the end of a chapter comparing the experiences of parishioners in a charismatic Anglican church and an independent, “free” charismatic church, both in the North of England. The former congregation was beginning to explore the connections between their charismatic experiences and historical Christian wisdom on contemplative prayer, while the latter congregation had analogous experiences in their (differing) practices of tongues speaking. Yet both groups, Coakley found, struggled to articulate the connection between prayer and “failure,” “darkness,” and suffering.
I’m working on a review of this book and will post a link here when it’s published.
This is my commonplace book and sometime-journal.
I blog at SpiritualFriendship.org.
My book is here: Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality.
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